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The Ecstasy of Endurance: Bela Tarr’s Satantango

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Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó is a notorious endurance test for even the most seasoned cinephile. Scott Tobias at The AV Club called it “the Mount Everest of modern cinema,” and for good reason. This 1994 Hungarian art film is more than seven hours long and only consists of around 170 shots; the average shot length is about two-and-a-half minutes, with some shots in the film lasting up to 10 minutes.

On top of duration, there’s also the subject matter of Sátántangó that makes it a difficult watch: human folly, human cruelty, human greed, and human stupidity. In an interview with Senses of Cinema, Tarr said, “I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘s**t’ I think I’m very close to it.” This low view is everywhere in the film. There’s an infamous scene where a mentally handicapped girl tortures a cat simply to exercise her own limited power over another living thing. (Tarr assured people that a veterinarian was on set, the cat was fine, and that it became his pet afterwards. Regardless, the cat clearly wasn’t having a good time.)

And so when I heard Sátántangó was playing in New York City last weekend, I had to go see it.

A little bit of background: Sátántangó is based on the novel of the same name by László Krasznahorkai, who’s collaborated with Tarr (seen above) on four other films. (An English translation of Sátántangó is coming out next week from the good people at New Directions.) It’s broken up into 12 non-linear parts that simulate the movement of a tango — six moves forward, six back. Tarr filmed the movie over the course of three or four years.

The screening was held at Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theater, and it was a pretty packed house. I was surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. Where else but New York would people flock to ascend a misanthropic film mountain like this? There would be two breaks spaced about two-and-a-half hours apart: a 15-minute break first, then a one-hour dinner break.

Sitting in the very back the entire time, I only noticed a handful of walkouts. What’s surprising is that I never once felt like leaving. I felt like no matter what happened, I had to get to the end, even if just to say that I made it through. Perhaps more surprising, I actually enjoyed Sátántangó, and more than just for its novelty and audacity. In fact, it’s absurdly funny at times, though in a really angry way.

I have never seen anything quite like Sátántangó, and no one will ever be crazy enough to attempt a movie like it. If you get nauseous at the phrase “European art movie” or at the mention of Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky, then abandon hope all ye who enter here. Yet if you’re an art movie snob who’s patient, Sátántangó has so much to offer, but you have to surrender to it.

This idea of surrender is key. I remember Eric Clapton saying that when he saw Stevie Ray Vaughan play in London, he felt that it was too loud for the first 10 minutes or so. Just six rows away from the stage, it was almost unbearable for him. Yet he finally surrendered to the music and got used to it.

That’s essentially what happened in the first two shots of Sátántangó. The audience stirred nervously, doing our final shuffles, coughs, and crinkles of paper as the silent credits flashed. We open on a large and decrepit building, possibly a former factory or warehouse, from which cows slowly emerge. They moo over the sound of lonely winds and a distant toll of bells. The cows plod through the mud at a leisurely pace, the camera glacially panning with them.

In the theater, a few nervous coughs, a slight yet quiet giggle that was mostly disbelief, and somewhere there was an exasperated exhale that emptied the lungs completely.

And then the camera tracks with the cows, slowly, deliberately, past the village. In the foreground, we glide by houses that have seen better days, exposed brick and peeling paint, mud-caked everything; and then in the spaces between the buildings, we see the cows again just loafing around, a bull occasionally trying to mount one of the reluctant heifers with little success. At the end of this almost eight-minute shot, after touring the outskirts of this village and understanding its plight in basic terms, the tracking ends and we see the cows again. They loaf, they linger, and then they depart around another building in the background, possibly leaving the village itself. The cows are just like the villagers we’re about to meet: hopelessly dumb animals.

After a bit of narration (perhaps taken from Krasznahorkai’s book), we have the second shot. It’s simply from inside a kitchen with the window as a central point of interest. Bells toll inexplicably even though the closest church’s bell tower collapsed years ago during the war, and its sound never carried far enough. For four minutes, we watch a man from behind look out the window with concern as the dawn gradually brightens the entire room.

Most of us were silent as we watched the quality of light change. We were somehow mesmerized. It’s at this point the surrender, at least for most of us, occurred. (“Mother told me, yes, she told me / That I’d watch films like you / She also told me, ‘Stay away / You’ll never know what you’ll catch’…“)

There’s something to be said about the way a long shot will captivate me. I’ll marvel at its duration first. Part of me will wonder why the shot takes so long. I mentioned before that the average shot length in Sátántangó is roughly two-and-a-half minutes. By comparison, the average shot length of a modern Hollywood picture is about 4-6 seconds; it was roughly 8-11 seconds prior to 1960.

As I got used to the slowness of the film and the way Tarr was framing his compositions, I noticed that there was usually something of interest going on in each shot. And if it wasn’t interesting immediately, there would be something interesting if I was just patient enough. The long takes and slowness made me more attuned to what I was watching and more conscious of how it was being presented. I was reading images like a dense block of modernist text.

The slowness also made moments of great activity seem more remarkable. There’s a particularly memorable two-minute shot that opens the second section of Sátántangó. It’s just Irimiás and his partner in crime walking through the wind and heavy rain as debris swirls madly around them. It gives these characters a sense of destructive power, and it’s coupled with those erosive forces of wind and rain that Tarr seems to like so much. (I joked to a friend that Sátántangó is not like watching paint dry, but more like watching paint age and peel.)

The 15-minute break arrived sooner than I expected. My ass was a bit numb from sitting, and I stepped outside for a bit of fresh air. I texted some friends who were curious about the movie. The text:

Assessment at first intermission: slow but constantly fascinating. Long shots make 2 hours seem faster — weird how sense of time is affected by shot length.

And it’s true. You read that Tarr establishes a certain rhythm to his films, which is an accurate way of putting it, and this rhythm affected my overall perception of time. Yes, it still felt long, but I think since I was perversely fascinated, it didn’t seem quite as long. It may also have to do with the concentration I’d invested into the first sections of the film, where deep involvement and attention will stave off boredom.

Back in the theater as the break wound down, many of us stretched and stood, and we all engaged in some people watching. You have to wonder who else would do this in a theater, especially since Sátántangó is available on DVD. I’d watched movie marathons with friends in living rooms through the course of a day, but that’s a much different atmosphere. We’re not watching art movies; instead it’s Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Dead Alive, Bad Boys 2, all the Rambo movies, the ALF Christmas special. There are conversations, food runs and beer runs, and we riff over goofy parts. The movie is more like a big bonfire that we gather around in order to form a brief and convivial community.

The crowd varied in age and appearance. You had a couple artsy-looking college kids and graduate students in there, which makes sense given the number of young cinephiles who come to New York for school. There were a number of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, and there were a lot of middle-aged people as well. A woman, maybe in her fifties, claimed to have traveled to a film fest somewhere (I think I heard Toronto) just to watch Sátántangó years before. I noticed an elderly couple who powered through the full showing. What we were doing may have seemed a bit bizarre, but no one seemed so odd to me… though maybe that just says something about the company I keep.

My mind began to wander for a bit at the beginning of the fifth section, Coming Unstitched. Part of it may have been the mild hangover I was dealing with. I felt like I should have grabbed some water or some coffee in the lobby during that break, and I was nodding off and getting upset. I pinched myself to stay awake on a few occasions. I have no idea how much time passed, but eventually I became enthralled. It starts out deliberately still, but the inevitable madness is brewing in the quiet moments.

The Coming Unstitched section opens with Estike and her older brother Sanyi planting money in the ground in hopes of making a money tree. As soon as she’s away, we know Sanyi will take the money for himself. Estike returns home where her mother ignores her, and then the demented little girl proceeds to torture her cat. It’s at that moment the movie grabbed me again, and made me feel uncomfortable in the extreme. Sure, Tarr says the cat was fine, but holy crap, it’s a difficult scene to watch. All the while, Estike looks blankly into the middle distance without an ability to feel any compassion or reason. She wrestles the screeching animal like some deranged Elmira from Tiny Toon Adventures. Later she poisons it, and she watches the life leave it like steam off a cooling bowl of soup.

It’s the Coming Unstitched and The Spider’s Work II (Devil’s Nipples, Satan’s Tango) sections that are probably my favorites. While there’s nothing but a depressive peril as Estike terrifies her pet cat and descends deeper into insanity, the ensuing section is just a bizarre drunken revelry that is absurd and funny. The cast was apparently really drunk when filming.

This segment should be unremarkable: just smashed idiots dancing to repetitive accordion music. Yet I couldn’t stop laughing. In the midst of this Hungarian mosh pit in a pub, one of the characters wanders back and forth balancing a loaf of bread on his forehead. Don’t ask me why I find this funny because I don’t think I can even explain it. Maybe it was just a symptom of absolute surrender.

But what’s remarkable is the intersection of these two segments. They connect with each other as well as a previous scene involving the village’s bumbling doctor. The interest just continued as these awful, bovine people stumbled around a pub, not so much dancing but just colliding and scowling. This bacchanalia ends with such delicacy and beauty. With everyone passed out, our focus becomes the spiders of the pub who have laid delicate threads on such indelicate beasts. While Tarr hates the world, he does find a few things worth admiring. Perhaps he’s not the complete nihilist he makes himself out to be.

And then it was the dinner break. Text to friends:

Hour break update: this movie is f***ing incredible… Or maybe I’m just in awe of its audacity.

Another text to a friend:

Either it’s f***ing phenomenal (if you’re into snooty European art movies) or my sanity left me at hour 3.

I spent my free hour grabbing snacks for the last segments of the film: gummy bears, a smoothie, some water, and a soda. It was good to stretch my legs and go for a walk. It wasn’t too cold, and somehow I didn’t feel like I had wasted my day. (Not that I had any plans, I guess.) I took in some fresh air out by the opera and the ballet and just tried to process some of what I’d been watching. Even now I’m parsing the moments and thinking about the film. It’s impossible to entirely grasp something so immense.

There was an article I remembered in The Atlantic from October last year. It discussed long works of art. The Flaming Lips had just released a six-hour song called “Found a Star on the Ground,” and Mike Barthel wondered what the point of a six-hour song was. Barthel also noted the existence of art pieces like Andy Warhol’s Empire as well as 10-hour YouTube videos of Nyan Cat and Epic Sax Guy.

Barthel’s first assertion about the song, which I agree with, was as follows:

…by requiring more effort and more dedication to consume than a normal three-minute pop song, hyperlong works force us to focus on music in a way we usually don’t. That separation of music from our everyday existence makes it a kind of sacred space — not the thing that’s going into your ears while you’re riding the subway or driving to work, but a special experience you make time for. And, like any good religious experience, the ultimate effect of hyperlong art is to alter your experience of time.

He later concludes by saying that hyperlong works also allow you to experience the work however you wish. I could have watched Sátántangó from the comfort of my apartment with breaks as needed, maybe a nap at the four-hour mark. I could even have played it at double time, like some friends and I did with The Next Karate Kid (which, incidentally, still felt longer than Sátántangó).

“The point of a six-hour song, in other words, is freedom,” Barthel writes. “Freedom for the creators to do what they want, to stretch out and try something new, sure. But it’s freedom for us, too. Here is a gift, they say; do whatever you like with it.” (At the end of October, The Flaming Lips released a 24-hour song called “7 Skies H3.” I sort of wonder what the point of that was.)

I walked back to the Walter Reade feeling refreshed and awake. As I entered the theater to secure my seat in the back, I flashed my stub to the ticket taker.

“Oh, you don’t need to show me that,” he said. “You have that Sátántangó look about you.”

As Sátántangó continued, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold up. Some friends who’ve run marathons have told me the last few miles are the most difficult part. Rather than running or jogging, they were reduced to a sort of pathetic shuffle as they crossed the finish line. Almost all of my friends who have run marathons have sworn never to do it again. Similarly, I don’t think I’ll ever watch Sátántangó again, or at least if I do, I won’t do it in a single sitting. It seems better to exercise my freedom with a long work like Barthel mentioned. Though at the same time, I don’t regret the experience.

The penultimate and shortest section of the film, Just Trouble and Work, is a bitterly funny and angry assessment of each of the villagers. We get to hear Irimiás’s true thoughts about this community by way of two government bureaucrats transcribing his report.

While I was laughing the entire time (this could have been signs of a manic insanity that was gradually building over the course of the day), I began to wonder if that was how Tarr felt about his characters as well. No one is sympathetic (not that I require sympathetic characters in the things I watch), everyone is a wreck. Even Futaki, the closest thing we have to a hero in the film, is a cripple. Not only are the villagers of Sátántangó a bunch of dumb cows, they’re also a bunch of crumbling, barely habitable buildings. They’re no longer a community at the end. They are isolated and discarded people, like boxes, paper, and other detritus carried off by hostile wind, pulped into dead earth by a constant rain.

You know, it’s probably impossible to end a seven-hour movie satisfactorily. After the final section and the appearance of the end credits, I didn’t know what I felt. Moved maybe? Or maybe not? Maybe frustrated but not surprised that it ended the way it did. Disappointed probably, but not completely. I didn’t feel cheated, though I did feel thoroughly exhausted.

I mentioned that it’s impossible to entirely grasp something so immense, which is why Scott Tobias’s idea about Sátántangó as the Mount Everest of modern cinema seems right. For many people, getting to the summit of Everest is an act of conquering, but I think that misses the importance of the ascent. Sure, there’s some ego involved in climbing Mount Sátántangó, but I didn’t conquer it. Instead, I felt like I’d reached the top and could view the world a little differently, with a new perspective on the land below. That’s what I came away with, at least I’d like to think that.

The audience dispersed and murmured on the way out of the theater. I wandered out into the lobby and down the street to the subway. A good friend who’s run a marathon noted that after he finished, he had a heightened sense of taste and smell. After long runs, he likes to have a steak, a beer, and some savory soup because they’re suddenly more flavorful. He mentioned that after one grueling run, a cutie clementine he ate became one of the best things he’d ever tasted.

I suppose that handful of gummy bears I popped into my mouth after the movie tasted a little sweeter. Maybe not. Thing is, after Sátántangó I felt something I couldn’t quite articulate and still can’t. Maybe I just felt like a cow in the mud.

EPILOGUE

In the subway.

“Hey, excuse me, did you just see Sátántangó?”

I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Jeez, that was something.”

“Yeah, man. I just feel like I need to talk to someone about it.”

I recognized him. He was a middle-aged guy sitting a couple rows ahead of me. We talked for maybe 20 minutes while switching trains — almost two reels, the equivalent of four or five shots in a Béla Tarr movie. We were enthusiastic and confused. We talked about that poor cat. We were surprised that there were so many people. I was surprised that there were so few walkouts.

“Well, it’s New York,” he replied. “So, you know.”

We wondered how many people would go see Sátántangó on Sunday during the Super Bowl, and what they’d be like. (In case you were wondering, the Super Bowl ended before Sátántangó would have ended.) We talked about other Tarr movies, we talked about Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski and Andrei Tarkovsky. We talked about Werner Herzog and Crazy Horse at Film Forum (the documentary with the naked French women everywhere) and Elias Merhige’s Begotten.

We talked about living in Brooklyn and trying to do creative stuff for a living. We talked about what we had planned for the Super Bowl. I joked about needing to decompress by watching a Jackie Chan movie before I passed out. We both laughed. We shook hands when I got to my transfer and we wished each other good luck.

I felt human again.